My brother-in-law, the muscle-car maven, would call this tiny, rounded auto the ultimate ?pregnant rollerskate.?
The Atlantic Magazine is calling it ?adorable? and speculating on whether Google?s motives for developing it are somehow nefarious.
Google, for its part, apparently views it as reinventing the wheel, a revolution on wheels ? but one which doesn?t actually involve what we now know as the steering wheel. Or the gas pedal. Or the brake. You get the idea. There?s just an on switch and an off switch. Talk about simple-but-elegant design.
The overall implications of a future with primarily self-driving cars — for technology, the economy, highway safety, day-to-day lifestyle and even ethics — are enormous. And no one really knows what they will be, even if they claim to.
As far as technical specifications, the authority is Chris Urmson, a presenter at last year’s annual RoboBusiness conference and former Carnegie Mellon University roboticist.
Director of the Self-Driving-Car-Project at Google, he?s hoping to have at least 100 of the cute little cars built and being tested later this year.
These tiny cars are brand-new ? until a few weeks ago, Google was retrofitting standard automobiles with its gadgetry — but he?s an old hand at this.
Urmson was technical director of the driverless-car team that won the 2007 annual challenge from DARPA, according to The Economist. His team?s ?main advantage over its rivals was that it had mapped the course in fine detail, something that his current employers are busy doing for the rest of the planet.?
?A self-driving vehicle can pay attention to all of these things in a way that a human physically can?t?and it never gets tired or distracted,? he said in a blog post a month ago.
Urmson said the new cars already have been tested extensively on streets surrounding the company?s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.
?As it turns out, what looks chaotic and random on a city street to the human eye is actually fairly predictable to a computer.?
The New York Times notes that the vehicles will have electronic sensors that can see about 600 feet in all directions. They will have rear-view mirrors only because these are required by California?s vehicle code, Urmson said. The front of the car is of a foamlike material, its windshield likewise softer than normal.
The self-driving cars currently go only 25 mph and are for street not highway driving. They?re being built somewhere in Detroit, for which Motor City presumably is grateful.
According to the NYT, they have a range of about 100 miles, powered by an electric motor that is roughly equivalent to the one used by Fiat?s 500e. They?ll start off close to home ? literally ? taking Google employees between buildings on its large campus.
Google executives said the initial prototypes would comply with current California automated-driving regulations updated just days ago, on May 20. They will have manual controls for testing on California public roads.
In the future, Google hopes to persuade regulators that the game-changing cars can operate safely without driver, steering wheel, brake or accelerator pedal. Those cars would rely entirely on Google sensors and software to control them.
For early testing, extra controls will be fitted so one of Google’s test drivers can take over if there is a problem. The controls will simply plug in, and Urmson believes that, over time, as confidence in the technology grows, they will be removed entirely.
The vehicle will use a combination of laser and radar sensors ? lidar — along with camera data to drive autonomously, depending on Google’s road maps and tested on the company’s current fleet of vehicles, the paper said.
Public Safety Issues
But you don?t have to be a fan of travel, or Google, or even care anything about technology, to be concerned about highway safety. Six months ago, the Government Accounting Office ? the research arm of the U.S. Congress ? issued a 48-page report that takes off from the sober fact that with our current, human-led system, ?In 2011, 5.3 million vehicle crashes in the United States resulted in more than 2.2 million injuries and about 32,000 fatalities.?
The report GAO-14-13 ?explores the status of vehicle-to-vehicle technologies, through which vehicles are capable of warning drivers of imminent collisions by sharing data, including information on speed and location, with nearby vehicles.? In other words, Washington wants to know what technology can do to reduce roadway carnage.
And, while GAO does not address the latest true self-driving car, much less take a stand on what Google is doing, GAO does acknowledge Google’s ongoing efforts at least twice in the report, said GAO Assistant Director Judy Guilliams-Tapia in a brief telephone interview with RBR.
LinkedIn Senior Editor Chip Cutter, who covered the Milken Institute Global Conference, wrote recently that the federal government is still studying how technology in these new automated cars should be regulated.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (which per Guilliams-Tapia makes the regulations) said in February that it would begin the process of reviewing vehicle-to-vehicle communication.
Cutter said that Kevin Vincent, NHTSA?s chief counsel, reiterated at the conference that the agency on principle generally supports innovation. ?One thing we want to do,? he said, ?is make sure we don?t stand in the way of this.?
According to an essay on LinkedIn by longtime Chicago-based CNBC correspondent Phil LeBeau, Google’s prototype — if it works as planned and its use becomes widespread — will eliminate the need for humans to make any decisions while driving.
?(Autonomous cars) free us up to check e-mails, play on our phones, take video calls, or just take a nap while getting to work; things that many people try (and fail) to do today,? he says he was told by Alec Gutierrez, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book.
LeBeau, a LinkedIn ?influencer? with more than 2,000 followers, applauds this effort to rid the world of drivers who are unable — for reasons ranging from slow reaction times to distractibility to impairment — to make the right decision at the right time .
Another author has a perhaps less sanguine view of what former human drivers will end up doing once they no longer have to — as the old song Roadhouse Blues has it — ?keep their eyes on the road and their hands upon the wheel.?
Ben Johnson, who pens the Codebreaker column, says, ?If you think companies like Google aren’t thinking about how to deliver us video advertisements once we can all kick back and veg out during the road trip, you’re not being cynical enough.?
The potential economic issues resulting from overall adoption of self-driving cars are almost too huge to rationally contemplate.
If one has to choose just one expert opinion, it probably should be that of someone who knows a lot about business.
And a particularly worthy candidate would be octogenarian billionaire Warren Buffett. Among many other things, his company, Berkshire Hathaway, owns the massive auto insurer Geico.
If self-driving cars take off, Geico and its competitors could easily take a hit, Buffett says.
Cutter quotes him: ?That is a real threat to the auto insurance industry. If (self-driving cars) prove successful and reduce accidents dramatically, it will be very good for society and very bad for auto insurers.?
In The Atlantic, Patrick Lin, director of the Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo, wonders in print about what happens when a judgment call is needed.
Lin is a visiting associate professor at Stanford?s School of Engineering, an affiliate scholar at Stanford Law School and an active author on the many intersections of technology and morality.
?Programmers still will need to instruct an automated car on how to act for the entire range of foreseeable scenarios, as well as lay down guiding principles for unforeseen scenarios. So programmers will need to confront this decision, even if we human drivers never have to in the real world. And it matters to the issue of responsibility and ethics whether an act was premeditated (as in the case of programming a robot car) or reflexively without any deliberation (as may be the case with human drivers in sudden crashes).?
Lin continues musing: ?Human drivers may be forgiven for making an instinctive but nonetheless bad split-second decision, such as swerving into incoming traffic rather than the other way into a field. But programmers and designers of automated cars don?t have that luxury, since they do have the time to get it right and therefore bear more responsibility for bad outcomes.?
Eric Sofge, who writes the Zero Moment blog for Popular Science, has looked even further down the road, so to speak.
He speculates about what any self-respecting Star Trek fan would recognize as a Kobayashi Maru moment. What would be the robot’s reasoning when confronted with an incipient accident — a situation in which there is no good result possible?
??things start to get a little sci-fi and more than a little unsettling … if robots are proven capable of sparing human lives, sacrificing the few for the good of the many??
So there you have it. Technological issues become lifestyle issues become legal issues become economic issues become moral issues. And no one — not even Google — has the answers.Read More